Numbers Separate Us from Reality

Numbers size up everything

Numbers help us measure, compare, predict, assess, confirm, and more. Numbers can become our world and we’d be lost if we did not resort to them as we do. The numbers that surround us can comfort us like a warm blanket against the cold, harsh realities the world sometimes springs upon us.

It is not a surprise that numbers make the news as we watch from our easy chairs and couches about how the world is plummeting through the pandemic, sometimes gaining, often slipping behind.

051120 Numbers

Numbers bring us news about Covid-19

The BBC News, reporting on the Coronavirus pandemic: Tracking the global outbreak, provides a wide assortment of news by the numbers:

Coronavirus is continuing its spread across the world, with nearly four million confirmed cases in 187 countries. About 275,000 people have lost their lives. … The US has by far the largest number of cases, according to figures collated by Johns Hopkins University. With more than 77,000 fatalities, it also has the world’s highest death toll.

The numbers go beyond the coronavirus pandemic as they identify the impact on human reactions, including unemployment and a comparison to the Great Depression:

At one point, more than 90% of the US population was under mandatory lockdown orders, but around half of the states have now begun to loosen their stay-at-home restrictions and allowed some businesses to reopen. 

The US unemployment rate has risen to 14.7%, with 20.5 million jobs lost in April, as the coronavirus pandemic devastated the economy.

The rise means the jobless rate is now worse than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Numbers give us a look at the world. It’s rather like parting the curtains to let in the blinding midday sun while we suffer a hangover. Scottie Andrew from CNN reports on the devastating impact of the pandemic:

  • Predictions of death matched against those reported
  • Economic worldwide financial losses
  • The DOW’s worst point drop in history
  • Price of U.S. oil per barrel
  • Numbers of defaulting renters
  • Numbers of tests needed per day in the U.S.
  • Numbers of obituary pages in the Boston Globe

William Hanage’s article title in The Guardian reminds us well: No matter how you crunch the numbers, this pandemic is only getting started.

Numbers make us numb

The problem with trying to absorb our daily dose of numbers is that they also numb, probably a reference to the first half of the word. (Did you use numbers to check the truth of that statement?) There is a separation that numbers provide as they objectify almost anything. Numbers push the concept away, just enough for us to see clearly without feeling.

Global numbers, even local numbers, that reflect the pandemic deaths that occur do not come close to touching us as much as news of someone we know who has succumbed to Covid-19. That number, that singular digit, touches us personally and the whole world’s struggle becomes our own. That “one” brings us closer to reality.

This is not really new and you’re certainly aware of the objectification that numbers achieve. What is frustrating is the fact that truth can be pushed away as numbers are used to prove a point. Disbelief sets in and gut reactions take over.

I’ll provide you two examples.

Example of when numbers push us away

Aleem Maqbool of the BBC News commented in her article on, The U.S. resistance to a continued lockdown. She quotes Rick Becker of North Dakota:

The hysteria that surrounded the coronavirus from the beginning was disproportionate. There was an overreaction by state governments with regard to mandatory shut downs, shelter in place, and so forth.

Emotions run high, understandably so, when it seems personal liberties are stepped on amidst a loss of jobs and income and the usual order of life. Maqbool continues:

… over recent weeks, Donald Trump has openly supported the protesters. But mixed messages from the White House have been a feature of this crisis. After signaling that he wanted some Democratic-run states “liberated” and opened up, the president then said he was “unhappy” when the Republican governor of Georgia made the decision to reopen the economy.

We reject what we do not understand. When the numbers don’t touch us, when they don’t directly affect us, they blur and begin to mean very little. I have run into a similar disdain when I have tried to show vote suppression numbers to state legislators and political party leaders.

For example, showing the confirmed proof that over 63 million votes were not represented in the Electoral College in 2016 because of the Winner-Takes-All (WTA) approach (separate from the Electoral College), made no impact. Were they not curious? Could they not appreciate the significance? Drilling down to local numbers, I have shown that Oregon set aside 51.15% of the votes in 2016 to no avail. Some legislators have even referred to it all as simply the mechanism of democracy at work. The numbers (the truth) were dismissed!

The numbers we see in today’s news are real – and they’re growing. That’s real. The task before us, individually, is to not let the numbers separate us from reality. We must recognize how close the virus comes, how destructive it is, and the pain – the reality – it leaves behind.

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By Jerry Spriggs and the Equal Voice Voting Team

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